European External Action Service

03/10/2023 | Press release | Distributed by Public on 03/10/2023 05:34

Keynote speech at the EU – Central Asia Civil Society Forum in Tashkent


Keynote speech at the EU - Central Asia Civil Society Forum in Tashkent


Your excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, friends,

It is a pleasure to see you all here in Tashkent. It has been more than a year since we last met in Almaty for the third Civil Society Forum. A few heart-breaking events have happened since then. And it is probably still safe to say that we have not yet fully recovered from the COVID 19 pandemic. On a positive note, however, our common agenda is only getting busier.

To begin with, I would like to highlight a few main discussion points and recommendations from the previous Forum. You can find the full text on my webpage. And use this opportunity to take stock on the direction we have been going since then.

At the Forum in Almaty we discussed the role that the Civil Society could play in sustainable post-Covid recovery. I was and still am deeply impressed with the creativity, resourcefulness and determination with which different organisations or just professionals and common citizens tackled those challenges.

Despite a lot of negative news, I dare to say that there was a degree of optimism that our participants projected in the room. During the COVID pandemic civil society came together in the broadest sense of the concept to help the most vulnerable, to support communities where governments were falling short, but also to sound alarm where necessary. This work helped save many lives.

We also spoke about how we can engage all sides from international organisations to governments to businesses to local communities into this incredible effort. With challenges mounting and resources getting smaller, no one can do it alone anymore. We need coalitions and team spirit, even the EU no matter how big is thinking in these terms nowadays.

It was a lively and engaged exchange of views and opinions, sharing of experiences and just seeing old friends after the Covid isolation. No virtual reality can replace a warm handshake, an a-ha moment during a heated discussion, or a joint brainstorming late in the evening. I hope we can continue this tradition of working together in this spirit.

Allow me to also share a few words on where we left off last time.

First, the COVID 19 pandemic has shown the importance of home grown initiatives for societal resilience.

Second, a significant part of the discussion focussed on understanding, improving and strengthening the relationship between the state authorities and the civil society in Central Asia. Even though we might have seen a few setbacks, I hope this trend will continue.

Third, we also spoke about women's rights. With so many brilliant women in the room then and now too, it was not possible not to talk about the backsliding in this area. I am happy to see that at this event we managed to set aside more time for this topic.

Same of course is true for engaging with youth. I am really happy to see that we already engaged with the young people on the topic we are discussing today on the margins of the Samarkand Connectivity Conference. My colleague Ambassador Adrien could perhaps share more.

As I look at the recommendations of the previous Forum, I am happy to see that also a lot of work has been done since then, especially by our central Asian partners.

The first recommendation was about encouraging regional cooperation. Stressing the importance for the civil societies across the region to exchange experience, best practices and lessons learned in addressing the challenge that societies are facing.

I was glad to learn that the work continues on implementing the Vision for the Development of Central Asia Civil Society 2025 and about the proposal for the Central Asian regional Civil Society Forum made here in Tashkent by the local civil society organisations.

I also commend the Central Asian civil society for standing up for their Afghan colleagues, for continuing to support them and their work.

The second recommendations about supporting the implementation of the UN Commitments and other international standards ties in nicely with the topics of this Civil Society Forum.

Finally, we discussed that the new local initiatives that have emerged within civil societies as a result of the pandemic should be explored and supported. I hope that the consultations you participated in yesterday will translate some of these new ideas into action.

To note, this was in 2021, but since then many events that we could barely imagine continued to challenge our values and our positive agenda. War in Ukraine, violence in four out of five Central Asian countries, devastating natural disasters, we are still struggling with the consequences of the COVID 19 pandemic.

But we should not slow down or despair. I was in India before this Forum and in the preparation of this speech thought of a quote by an Indian politician Jawaharlal Nehru.

He said "Crises and deadlocks when they occur have at least this advantage, that they force us to think."

I hope that through all of these troubles, there will be more realisation that civil society plays an important role in making the societies resilient, and in helping set the trajectory for prosperity.

The vision of the development of the Civil Society until 2025 that was shared with us, sums it up well. It wishes to see the Central Asian civil society as an active and flexible society, have a new generation of leaders who will be balanced between service orientation and advocacy. It will be focused on cooperation and integration of thematic areas and demonstrate commitment to the principles of freedom and democracy. Above all, it will be a society reflecting the culturally rich, diverse and multigenerational reality of Central Asia.

Now back to the EU: On our side, the EU has also been thinking about how "not to let a crisis go to waste" to paraphrase Winston Churchill. I dare to say that despite everything we continue to build a positive agenda between the EU and Central Asia. We do it through more high-level engagement, thinking through how to engage Central Asia into the EU global agenda of green transition and connectivity and through Team Europe Initiatives.

But we should not be doing our thinking alone. The benefits should be mutual and a win-win for all. So this is one outcome that we aim at today. This brings me to the topic of our Forum today.

As some of you might know, in 2021 the EU launched a Global Gateway initiative. Global Gateway is the EU's positive offer to our partner countries in support of their own strategic autonomy. It stands for sustainable and trusted connections that work for people and the planet, to tackle the most pressing global challenges, from climate change and protecting the environment, to improving health security and boosting competitiveness and global supply chains. It covers five main sectors - digital, climate and energy, transport, health, and education and research.

It might sound like it is about investment into hard infrastructure, but it is not. The ultimate goal is to deliver lasting social and economic benefits for local communities. So it is also about principles, which include democratic values, and high standards, good governance and transparency, green and clean transition and outcomes.

We have already had a successful engagement on this initiative with the governments at the Samarkand Conference in November last year. But as you know it is in the EU's DNA to work closely with the civil society and think tanks too. So this Forum is an opportunity to hear your voices and views.

When launching the initiative the EU has made a commitment that those most affected by potential projects - local communities, businesses and partners - must have their full say through proper public consultations and civil society involvement. Projects should ensure affordable and equal access to the services and benefits they will deliver, notably for women and girls and those at risk of disadvantage or exclusion.

The EU has also promised that projects will live up to the European Green Deal oath to 'do no harm' and ensure the use of environmental impact assessments and strategic environmental assessments. On this ambitious note, I look forward to our discussions today and engagement in the future.

Thank the government of Uzbekistan for hosting the Forum.

Thank colleagues from the International Partnerships Directorate and the Danish Human Rights House for bringing all of us together and organising this Forum.